Where I live in Arkansas, pickup trucks are the king of the highway. The trucks are big: four wheel drive, off-road tires, often with crew cabs and dual rear wheels, three-quarter ton packages, and engines that run beyond the standard 150 up through 250 to 350 sizes. The good-ole-boy salesman on the radio talks about trucks that come “country boy loaded,” meaning everything you can imagine from GPS to air conditioned and heated seats, satellite radio, OnStar emergency service, back up cameras, fold down steps, chrome and more chrome, and any other bright jewel that would make a country boy sit up and say “Hot Dang. I got to have that.” Most of the truck rarely gets used—that is, the engine, drive train, and four wheel drive are nice to have and certainly something to talk about, but the majority of trucks sold as work trucks are honestly too nice to use on a job. Other than pulling a fifth-wheel camper, a bass boat, or a trailer with a couple of riding mowers, four-wheelers, or golf cart on board, most trucks I see in Arkansas are substantially underutilized. Arkansans are proud of their trucks, but should an Arkansas truck happen to bump into an Icelandic modified truck, it would run and hide in the nearest garage.
On the morning of our fifth day in Iceland, we meet our guides and super-jeep drivers, Jon Kristinn and Eggert. The plan is to drive up to Landmannalaugar, the base camp at the other end of the 55 kilometer trail that begins (or ends) at Porsmork. Between the two camps the trail passes through a landscape dominated by four glaciers: Torfajokull, Myrdalsjokull, Eyjafjallajokull, and Tindfjallajokull (jokull, obviouslym means glacier). Torfajokull, just above Landmannalaugar, is the largest high temperature geothermal area in Iceland. The drivers are to pick us up and drive us through a high altitude volcanic wasteland to the base camp, where we can hike, soak in a hot springs, and sleep in a communal hut.
Compared to Sigurdar, who is a softspoken man with a gentle sense of humor and a love of walking the earth on foot, so as to see it better, Jon and Eggert are rock stars. Jon, I will find out, owns the company. He calls the gasthause where we are staying and tells the owner he will be a few minutes late. I’m standing by the window when we see the vehicle pull up the road. Tyler, who helps direct the study abroad program we are a part of, looks dubious. “They usually send two jeeps,” he says. “I guess we can all fit into that, though.”
The vehicle is a Mercedes 18 passenger bus, a Sprinter, but it’s massive. The cab is high enough to stand up in, and it’s mounted on waist high balloon tires and pulling a four by eight baggage trailer behind it with equally large tires. Jon Kristinn climbs down and discusses some details with Tyler. He’s late 40s to early 50s, with a dark complexion, unruly dark hair going gray at the temple. He wears wrap-around sunglasses in misting overcast rain and speaks good English with a light accent (like almost every Icelander we meet). He stands under the eave while Eggert backs the trailer up to our door in a narrow lot, using a lot of trial and error. “He needs the practice,” Jon says. We load the luggage and climb aboard and begin our trip.
After the easy familiarity we had developed with Sigurdur, it’s difficult to make the adjustment to Jon and Eggert. Eggert is quiet, a handsome, cut glass hunk who looks a little like Channing Tatum with a self-conscious hair style: Close-trimmed on one side of his head and moussed out long and spiky on the other. When he isn’t loading luggage or driving or adjusting something on the truck, he stands off to the side smoking Winstons and thumbing his I-phone. My wife says I should get a picture and send it to a friend of hers, a woman who appreciates “eye candy.”
Lisa and I get on the bus, taking the same seats behind the driver that we had had with Sigurdur. Looking back, I notice that the seating pattern we established that first morning in Iceland has held up the entire trip. Jon takes up his microphone and introduces himself as “driver and guide,” and Eggert as “driver, guide, and master chef.” He explains that we will be taking a high elevation off-road route to Landmannalaugar, passing some volcanos and waterfalls along the way. We only drive a few miles before Jon tells Eggert to pull over at a gas station to “get some tunes for the road.” He and Eggert go into one side of the station. I’m not sure exactly what’s in there, but the rest of us go into the other half, a convenience store, to stock up on soft drinks for the next two days. When we get back on the road Jon plugs his cell phone into the stereo system and we hear a remix of classic and pop American rock: “Sexual Healing,” “Don’t Fear the Reaper,” and other songs that sound familiar but are just a little bit off, like Icelandic covers in English. Jon and Eggert chat in Icelandic while Jon constantly fiddles with something electronic, whether his phone, the music, the GPS, the VHF radio, a tablet computer, or one of the several cords plugged into the charging unit on the floorboard. Occasionally he holds the microphone to his chin below his lips to make an announcement. The Mercedes is equipped with Wi-Fi and when the signal is good everyone in the back checks their phones.
After we drive for a while, we pull off on the side to, as Jon tells us, “prepare the vehicle for off road driving.” Most of us climb out to look at the countryside, and as we get back on the bus, Tyler tells me, “You ought to ask Jon about his truck. Trucks are a real culture in Iceland.”
After a while I ask Jon about his truck, and for the first time, his eyes really sparkle and he turns around to tell me all about it. The Mercedes we are driving is an experimental hybrid model, extremely modified from what came out of the factory. They started with a Mercedes Sprinter 18 passenger van body, but they put it on a heavy duty truck frame and outfitted it with a Ford F-350 drive train. They beefed up the diesel engine, added four wheel drive, and altered the transmission to add more torque. The point of all the additions, Jon says, is to make it so the truck can go as slow as possible up the steepest grades imaginable. It is one powerful machine, sitting on 46 inch non-radial balloon tires. Earlier, when we had stopped to prepare the machine for off road, Jon and Eggert had reduced the air pressure from 24 psi that they use to run the truck on the highway, down to about 10 psi that they used to smooth the ride out on backcountry trails. The dash has an impressive array of gauges and electronics. I ask if the tires have pressure monitors like I’ve seen on some newer passenger cars. Jon laughs and holds up a pencil shaped tire gauge. “Computers break down,” he said. “These things don’t.”